In storm's wake, Fla. IT managers see need for telecom upgrades

Communications problems complicate recovery efforts after Hurricane Charley

As Hurricane Charley blew through Port Charlotte, Fla., on Aug. 13, Kathleen Russell stood in a dark closet 15 miles away with a flashlight in one hand and a cell phone in the other. She was trying to find out if the databases at the insurance agency where she works could be restored in time to handle claims from its 15,000 customers.

Russell's company, Key Agency Inc. in Englewood, Fla., had contracted with a disaster recovery services firm to replicate its customer data to a backup facility in Massachusetts. Workers there were able to restore the agency's data within 10 hours. "That to me just boggles the mind," said Russell, Key's office manager.

IT managers in the areas hit by Charley said last week that although the storm took an unexpected path through the center of the state, they weren't wholly unprepared because of lessons learned from Hurricane Andrew 12 years earlier. For example, they said, Andrew taught them to geographically disperse their data center operations.

But Charley taught some new lessons, such as the need to improve communications.

Dennis Klinger, CIO at Florida Power & Light Co. in Juno Beach, said 800,000 of the utility's 4.1 million customers in western and southern Florida were without power last week. Recovery operations were going remarkably smoothly because of an abundance of planning and past experience, Klinger added.

But there were some things that Klinger hadn't counted on. "We use various cell and wireless providers," he said. "All of them experienced some very serious damage." Broken connectivity between cellular towers hampered the ability of the utility's emergency crews to communicate, he said.

Florida Power & Light's 800 IT workers had several means of communication, including radios, cell phones and satellite-based phones. But Klinger said they experienced bandwidth-clogging traffic levels, particularly with the satellite phones. "We need to look at more reliable and wider-bandwidth satellite communications that we can implement more quickly," he said.

Hurricane Charley leveled buildings in Port Charlotte and other parts of Florida and left up to 1 million people without power.

Hurricane Charley leveled buildings in Port Charlotte and other parts of Florida and left up to 1 million people without power.

Image Credit: Newscom

Marvin Shumacher, director of information systems at Heart of Florida Regional Medical Center in Davenport, just outside Orlando, said last-mile network issues affected communications at the hospital. The electric-powered copper wires running into the building were knocked out of service by the storm, he said.

But the hospital's network, data center and radiology imaging systems remained online, running off of rack-mounted battery units from American Power Conversion Corp. in West Kingston, R.I., while backup power generators kicked in.

Heart of Florida's parent company, Health Management Associates Inc. in Naples, Fla., also operates Charlotte Regional Medical Center in Punta Gorda -- the area that was hit hardest by Charley.

Because of the storm's erratic path, the Charlotte facility didn't have time to evacuate 73 patients or its staff before it hit, Shumacher said. Charlotte Regional lost power as well as its roof and the windows on its second and third floors.

But Health Management Associates replicates data from its hospitals to backup data centers in Atlanta and Boulder, Colo., according to Shumacher. Company workers used the backup data and portable generators to restore Charlotte Regional's systems by the middle of last week, he said.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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